John Hibbing’s political research is bipartisan in that it aggravates both sides of the aisle.
After he connected sensors to people’s heads, tracked individuals’ eyes as they looked at pictures and measured people’s skin conductance to detect the openness of their moisture glands, he and University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science department chair Kevin Smith determined biology impacts an individual’s political beliefs.
“Our research is not really very popular,” Hibbing said. “Conservatives think this is an attempt by academics, who they think are all liberals, to attempt to paint them as flawed, genetically or physiologically. Liberals tend not to like it because they want to believe everyone is malleable.”
Although some act like those with different opinions are morally incorrect, the professors’ research provides evidence biology impacts an individual’s political beliefs.
Hibbing is branching off from their research about conservatives and liberals and is preparing to collect data about President Trump’s supporters in order to study how they differ from other conservatives.
“There are these nationalist, nativist concept leaders everywhere,” Hibbing said. “So, I thought having access to Trump supporters and really digging in deep to figure out what’s going on with them would help us understand these kinds of populist, nativist movements.”
A company will send out Hibbing’s survey at the beginning of February, and he said he will analyze the data to better understand Trump supporters.
“I think a lot of their policy attitudes are not necessarily driven by ‘Oh my God, the Mongol hordes are coming to get us,’” Hibbing said. “It’s ‘This is what I need to do.’”
Hibbing said people should be careful about drawing conclusions from the experiments’ results. The data collected about a participant’s physical symptoms could have many different meanings, so Hibbing is careful not to make generalizations about conservatives or liberals as a whole.
Both Hibbing and Smith understand their research will not change the polarized political environment, but Smith said he thought it would help people understand that other people’s political beliefs were based on biology and not the “wrong” opinion.
“Maybe I’m not 100 percent correct. Maybe there is another legitimate way to look at the political world,” he said. “That’s kind of a little bit idealistic, but you never know; we might get there.”
Graduate student Clarisse Warren said she moved from Tennessee to Lincoln so she could work with Hibbing and Smith.
“I am a fangirl — I really am,” she said. “I left the warmth of Tennessee to come to Nebraska — a state that I’d never even been to … just to work with them. People thought I was crazy for turning down other, maybe higher-ranked, universities, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Smith said the team will continue to conduct research on the physiological differences between conservatives and liberals.
“Deep down, I’m kind of hopeful that there will be a little less hostility,” Hibbing said. “They just say ‘Wow, I still don’t get these people. They experience the world differently than I do.’ If we start with that, maybe we can understand and compromise a little bit better.”
This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of The DN.